A Gaming Graphics Card Buyers Guide To Help You Buy Smarter
The holy trinity of hardware parts for any PC gamer is the CPU, graphics card and the RAM; if you’re looking to play modern PC games with all the graphical features turned to maximum, you need top-of-the-line components in all three categories. Out of the three groups, the graphics card is the single most important hardware component when it comes to playing PC games. Skimp on the graphics card and your PC games are going to look like they came straight out of 1996 rather than 2017. Knowing the fundamentals of graphics cards will ensure you get the perfect one for your gaming needs.
What Is a Graphics Card?
Simply put, a graphics card is the hardware component that controls the graphics in your computer and determines what you see on your monitor. Though many motherboards have a built-in graphics card capable of displaying the basics to your screen, if you want to play any modern PC games, you need a standalone graphics card. Graphics cards range from as little as $100 to as high as $700, with a simple rule of thumb being that the more expensive the card, the better it is. A high-end graphics card can produce jaw-dropping graphics that will blow you away while a low-end graphics card will require you to turn all the display settings down for modern games. Price isn’t the only determining factor; you also want to look for both the amount and type of RAM a card has. The more RAM a card has, the better it will perform.
If you’re building a gaming PC or planning on upgrading a current one, the graphics card is the one area you shouldn’t skimp on if you can afford it. A high-end graphics card will allow you to play PC games on the highest settings for at least a few years, while a budget graphics card will require you to upgrade to a newer card in the span of a year or two if you want to play the hottest titles.
Who Are the Major Graphics Card Brands?
One of the first things that someone new to the world of graphics cards notices is that there are a lot of brands, with two or more names sometimes listed on one box! The best way to understand the different graphics cards brands and how they interact is to think of the hierarchy in the shape of a pyramid.
At the top of the pyramid is NVIDIA and AMD, the companies behind the technology that powers each graphics card. Rather than make the cards themselves, these two companies license their technology to a handful of smaller companies, such as EVGA, MSI and Gigabyte, to manufacture and sell graphics cards using their technology. Many times, multiple companies will make a card using the same technology, with the only difference being the size and weight of the card along with the software that comes in the box.
While some gamers may have their preferences towards a certain manufacturer, for the most part, everyone is on equal ground. While some gamers believe in brand loyalty, such as NVIDIA cards providing better graphics and MSI having more durable cards, in general, you’ll get the same performance from similar cards no matter which brand you decide to purchase.
What Is SLI and CrossFire?
You may notice on some graphics cards that they boast compatibility with SLI or CrossFire technology. The easiest way to describe this technology is that it’s the process of linking two similar graphics cards together via a cable to achieve double the processing power. NVIDIA’s name for this technology is SLI while AMD uses the term CrossFire, though both terms mean the same thing. Only the most hardcore gamers who want to get the best possible graphics are going to want to delve into SLI or CrossFire technology; for the majority of PC gamers out there, one decent graphics card is more than enough to achieve a beautiful looking picture on any PC game.
What Is a Bottleneck?
As previously mentioned in this guide, the more RAM a card has, the better it performs, so you may think it’s best just to go out and buy the biggest and most expensive card you can find. However, before you click that “Submit Order” button, there is one thing that can stop you from getting the most out of your graphics card: bottlenecks.
The formal definition of a bottleneck is “a point of congestion or blockage,” which is the same definition when used regarding your graphics card. One of the first things this guide mentioned was the holy trinity of PC hardware, which is RAM, CPU and the graphics card. If one of these hardware elements is substandard, it’s going to limit the output of the other components, causing a bottleneck. For example, you can purchase the best graphics card available but with an average CPU and a substandard amount of RAM, you’re going to get decreased output from your card and limit its potential. Before purchasing a graphics card, take a look at the rest of your PC’s hardware components and buy one that compliments the rest of your setup rather than significantly exceeds it. If you have some expendable income, consider upgrading your RAM and CPU at the same time as your graphics card, if possible.
What Else Do I Need to Know?
If you’re confident that your CPU and RAM won’t bottleneck your graphics card, there is still a few more considerations to keep in mind: size, slot type and cooling.
As mentioned in the section about brands, many times one of the different factors between similar graphics cards is the size. Some companies opt to create humongous cards with multiple fans in an attempt to keep the temperature low. While it’s always great when a manufacturer packs a card full of extra features, an oversized graphics card will have trouble fitting into an average-sized PC case, which can cause issues. For example, an oversized graphics card could block access to other areas on your motherboard or, in a worst-case scenario, will not fit into your case at all. Before buying a graphics card, make sure to measure the available space in your PC case to ensure the card will fit.
When you measure the open space in your PC case, take note of the types of slots your motherboard has so you can buy the appropriate card for those slots. For example, if the graphics card you buy needs to fit into a PCIe slot and your motherboard only has standard PCI slots, you just purchased a very expensive paperweight.
Lastly, there is cooling. Most graphics card come with stock coolers that keep your card’s temperature down and are perfect for the majority of PC gamers. However, if you’re planning on gaming for hours on end or overclocking your graphics card, you will want to look into aftermarket coolers.
Here’s Our List Of The Top 10 Best Graphics Cards On The Market
Armed with the basics of what a graphics card is, what the terminology stands for and what you need to keep in mind, you’re ready to choose one for yourself. Below, we’ve highlighted 10 of the best graphics cards on the market today, separating them into categories such as entry-level graphics cards, budget gaming cards and high-end graphics cards.
Entry-level Graphics Cards
With 4GB of DDR3 RAM and a 128-bit fast memory bus, the Inno3D Nvidia-Geforce GT 730 makes an excellent entry-level graphics card for a first-time PC builder. This card not only packs enough power to run even the latest games on medium graphics settings but also has Blu-ray 3D support and makes mundane tasks such as Web browsing up to five times faster. This card isn’t just for gamers, as tasks such as video editing and photo editing take up to 50 percent less time with the Inno3D Nvidia-Geforce GT 730.
Thanks to its 2GB of DDR5 RAM, the EVGA GeForce GTX 750Ti provides 25 percent more power with twice the power efficiency over other graphics cards in its price range. This graphics card not only packs a lot of power under its hood but comes with a variety of programs to help your games look better, including NVIDIA GameStream, G-SYNC, and GeForce Experience.
Best Budget Graphics Cards
While the ZOTAC GeForce GT 730 Zone Edition won’t play the latest PC games at the highest settings, this budget graphics card is perfect for gamers who are looking to play some of the classics of the previous years. With 2GB of DDR3 RAM and support for DirectX 12, this card is more than capable of handling non-gaming tasks such as photo editing and Web browsing. The small profile of this card means that it can fit into a variety of PC cases with room to spare.
If you’re a fan of indie gaming, you aren’t going to need a high-end graphics card capable of pushing large amounts of 3D graphics. The VisionTek Radeon 6450 clocks in at under $50 and, while you won’t play the likes of Witcher 3 or Metal Gear Solid V with this graphics card, it’s perfect for popular indie games such as Undertale, Hearthstone and The Binding of Isaac. This card is also ideal for gamers looking to build an older gaming computer, such as a Windows XP computer designed specifically to play older games.
Value for Money Graphics Cards
Priced below $150, the EVGA GeForce GTX 950 gives you excellent value for your money. This card includes the following features:
- 2 GB of GDDR5 RAM
- A proprietary EVGA cooling system to ensure your card’s temperatures stay low
- Support for DirectX 12
- NVIDIA GameWorks integration
- A low-power motor that ensures this card is virtually silent during gameplay
- PowerColor R7 360
Like the EVGA GeForce GTX 950 graphics card, the PowerColor R7 360 is the perfect card for gamers looking to get the most bang for their buck. With 2GB of GDDR5 RAM, 768 stream processors and support for DirectX 12, you can easily play games like Fallout 4 on Ultra settings at 60 frames-per-second. While this card will likely start to show its age in a few years, you’ll get at least a solid three or four years out of the PowerColor R7 360 before you need to upgrade.
Best Mid-range Graphics Cards
As it states in the name, the ASUS STRIX Radeon R7 370 Overclocked is overclocked by the manufacturer, providing more power than other graphics card in the same price range. If you’re worried that the overclocked settings will cause damage due to excessive heat, you can put your mind at ease as ASUS added extra cooling to this graphics card to ensure it stays at low temperatures. With video outputs for HDMI, DVD-I and DisplayPort, this graphics card gives you the opportunity to hook your PC up to both monitors and televisions alike.
When you want a graphics card that will not only work perfectly for today’s PC gaming releases but also the peace of mind that you can run future games at maximum settings, then you’ll want the Sapphire Radeon NITRO R7 370. This graphics card features 4GB of GDDR5 RAM, outputs for multiple video connections including HDMI and support for resolutions up to 2560 x 1600. With the proprietary Dual-X Fans keeping this card cool at all times, this card is perfect for gamers who want to pull an all-nighter playing games like Overwatch and Call of Duty: Black Ops III.
Best High-end Graphics Cards
When you’re looking for the absolute best graphics card that money can buy, then one of the best choices is the Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1060. This graphics card offers features that the competition can only dream about, including:
- Support for an 8K display
- Built-in overclocking features
- 6GB of GDDR5 RAM
- Two massive fans that keep this card cool at all times
- SLI compatibility
- Five video ports, including HDMI
- Support for DirectX 12 and OpenGL 4.5
- MSI GAMING GTX 960
If you’re looking for a high-end card that’s more affordable, then the MSI GAMING GTX 960 is the ideal card for you. This overclocked card features 4GB of GDDR5 RAM, meaning your PC is ready for games such as Gears of War 4 and Titanfall 2. The best part about this card is its slim frame and the fact it only requires a 400W power supply. With two large fans, you’d expect this card to drown out the sounds from your speakers; however, it operates so silently, you’ll hardly hear a peep out of it even during times of intense graphical load.
While choosing a graphics card is a challenging task if you’re a PC gaming novice, you’ll be glad you made the plunge as your games will never have looked better. You might want to grab a case of Mountain Dew and a few bags of Doritos to go with your graphics card purchase, as you’re likely to spend some long nights replaying all your favorite games again in higher graphical settings!